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Earl Peel: I refer to Amendment No. 458A and the whole question of enhancement of land. I take a slightly different line from that of some of my noble friends. I welcome the opportunity to enhance SSSIs. That is a laudable objective. I go so far as to say that many of the biodiversity action plan proposals would not be achievable if we did not enhance sites of special scientific interest.
However, my noble friend Lady Byford is absolutely right to say that at the end of the day we return to the matter of finance. I cannot believe for one moment that the Government intend to invite owners of SSSIs to enhance their land without proper compensation being provided. Such compensation is only fair and just. My knowledge of the Bill is not sufficient for me to give a definitive answer. I cannot believe that that will be so. I welcome the opportunities for enhancing SSSIs wherever possible.
Amendment No. 487B relates to restoration. I believe that restoration is perfectly reasonable and right for any conservation agency to demand if wilful damage can be shown. But as noble Lords have said, we have to be extremely careful. Traditional operations on these sites could create damage without the owner realising it. It comes back to the question of sensitivity and the relationships between the conservation agencies and the owners. From my experience of English Nature I cannot believe that such a situation is likely to arise.
The Bill is unclear on how restoration will be dealt with. The issue has to be dealt with delicately. I seek confirmation from the Minister that if traditional land uses were responsible for degradation of a site, clearly the countryside agencies would deal with it with the necessary tact and care.
Baroness Young of Old Scone: Perhaps I may outline some of the good relationships between English Nature and landowners on restoration of land. That 40 per cent of our SSSIs are in unfavourable condition and show no signs of improving is a dreadful statistic. It would almost rip out the heart of the Bill if it did not address that appalling statistic.
In many cases at present landowners voluntarily enter into agreements with English Nature for restoration processes. English Nature is delighted to be able to help with funding where appropriate. I do not believe that the position would be significantly different in the future. The question of restoration is fundamental to the Bill. It involves discussion with landowners and agreements about the management required. The financial guidelines and guidance will set
Earl Peel: The noble Baroness said that 40 per cent of SSSIs were being damaged. I am sure she will acknowledge that the root cause of that damage is the somewhat unsatisfactory common agricultural policy.
Baroness Young of Old Scone: The noble Earl is correct that many of the reasons underlying the unsatisfactory condition of SSSIs relate to the common agricultural policy. I can give a list of about 20 other policies which are wreaking their worst.
Let us not use the word "damage" because in many cases SSSIs are not damaged. They are in unfavourable condition as a result of lack of appropriate management. In many cases management schemes may not be appropriate. The current informal arrangements with landowners through management agreements and wildlife enhancement schemes may be the most appropriate way forward. The more stringent requirements of management schemes and management notices are intended to be used where there is some difficulty about reaching agreement with landowners.
The noble Baroness, Lady Byford, raised the issue of a baseline with regard to restoration. An SSSI is notified for its special interest features. If those features are in an unfavourable condition at the time of notification, a commitment is made to get them into a favourable conservation condition. There will be no carte blanche. We will not be trying to get land back to the condition that it was in in, say, 1930 or 1825. Nobody is trying to recreate Constable landscapes or Hardy country. The provisions relate clearly to the condition of the specific features for which the area has been designated. The objective is strictly defined and restricted.
Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: We would not be happy for the amendments to be carried. The statutory underpinning of the biodiversity action plan, which features in a later amendment tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, would become unaffordable if money was to be the bottom line in the enhancement and restoration of sites. These amendments contradict the aims of that statutory underpinning, which does not seem to have the financial bottom line that the noble Baroness has just implied that these amendments have. If that is the underlying idea, any statutory underpinning of biodiversity would be unaffordable and almost impossible to achieve.
Lord Rotherwick: I hope that the Minister does not misunderstand us. Most of us commit a large percentage of our income to the enhancement, restoration and maintenance of our landscape. However, more than 22,000 people in the agricultural sector will lose their job this year, on top of more than 20,000 who lost their job last year. We are inhibited from doing all that we want to do by lack of funding. Most of us are already involved in schemes such as countryside stewardship and do our utmost to enhance the land. We are behind the idea, but we are frightened of being forced into something that we cannot control or finance.
Lord Whitty: This is pushing the situation. I get irritated by this and at this stage of the night I am entitled to express my irritation. Some people engaging in the debate have a direct financial interest in these matters. They are taking the opportunity to exaggerate the implications of what is only a notification procedure. It is a ludicrous exaggeration to say that it will cause unemployment in the agricultural sector.
The provisions are about notification. That must include the need for enhancement and restoration. It does not of itself impose any additional liability on the occupiers or owners. That is covered in the management scheme, as my noble friend Lady Young of Old Scone has said. The payments under any management agreement will identify the necessary actions. There are financial guidelines for that. They will include the costs arising to the land manager from the operations that are required under the agreement. The idea that landowners are threatened with huge new costs when we are only asking for SSSIs to be maintained in a reasonable condition and kept in the condition agreed when they were first identified as SSSIs is a distortion of the situation.
It is hoped that amicable agreements can be reached between the conservation agencies and the landowners. However, I do not believe that the situation is helped by spreading despondency among landowners by suggesting that that will impose a huge new cost on them. That is not the case. It is not the case under the current procedure and it will not be the case under this Bill. However, on the other hand, landowners have a clear responsibility to co-operate and reach agreements with English Nature and the Countryside Council for Wales.
I apologise for being slightly irate at this point. I believe that the debate has been distorted. Although the noble Baroness moved her amendment in a reasonable manner, I believe that part of the motivation behind her being requested to table it was not reasonable.
Earl Peel: Perhaps I may try to put the noble Lord's mind at rest. I do not believe that there was anything behind this matter other than to try to establish whether enhancement--a word which has considerable ramifications--would be dealt with in a fair and equitable way. The noble Lord went on about landowners. However, let us also remember that many small farmers will be affected by this legislation. When they hear about English Nature being involved in enhancement schemes, they are bound to become concerned.
Baroness Young of Old Scone: Perhaps the noble Earl will take heed of the encouraging discussions that we are having at present with a number of small farmers, particularly in the uplands. When they are poised on the brink of financial unviability as a result of the extremely serious situation in agriculture in the uplands, quite often the sight of English Nature coming over the horizon with a cheque in its hand is what keeps them from the wall. They are delighted to see us. It is in the spirit of the future of agriculture that farmers are diversifying into a whole variety of functions. Small farmers in particular are earning a living from a range of sources, some of which are in agricultural production but many of which are involved in the enhancement of conservation of the landscape for the future.
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